Though All Else Fall Away

Twenty years ago, I helped found Torrey Academy, an interdisciplinary program for homeschooling highschool students, which was offered through Biola University in California. In June of this year, Torrey Academy completed its “final academic year providing life-changing classical humanities courses to homeschoolers.” What follows is a reflection I wrote on the closing of the program. (The essay was first published by Torrey Academy here.)

In this unsettling time of estrangement and upheaval, when loss compounds on loss, I want to sit in the stillness with the loss. I want to mourn and not to mourn. This is a time to sit in silence with the mentors who teach us stillness, guides such as the Inklings and, one of my favorites, T. S. Eliot. These are guides who weave the true myths that move us through bewilderment into a more profound understanding of reality’s deepest truths.

This necessary progression, often cyclical, through bewilderment toward mythic synthesis has been a foundational principle underlying the Torrey Academy curriculum that has impacted hundreds of students and their families for two decades. How shall we grieve the closing of a program that has not merely taught students information but has moved them to greater love, to deeper understanding, to fitter zeal, and to truer fellowship?

I both mourn the end of Torrey Academy’s run at Biola University, and also I do not mourn it. Serving as founding teacher and administrative leader of Torrey Academy for the program’s first six years was a transformational opportunity that has continued to shape the trajectory of my life. Here are some of the truths Torrey Academy has taught and continues to teach me, which I am currently sitting with and holding:

I. We are never good enough, but that’s okay.

I think it was during set-up for the first Torrey Academy awards ceremony twenty years ago that this truth crystallized: I wasn’t fit to fill my role because of my virtues and abilities, but rather, despite my vices and deficiencies, God’s grace outfitted me beyond my merits. I was fresh out of my undergraduate degree program and quite green. I made many mistakes those first years, and learned so much as I bumped along like an awkward June bug. I did my best, but God worked beyond my best. And those first families who took a chance with Torrey Academy were so gracious and supportive. I am still grateful to each of those parents and students and to all who have come after, those who have continued carrying the flag of a holistic, classically-informed, Christ-centered education. God’s grace has worked in each of us beyond our deserving.

II. We are each replaceable in our roles.

Leaving Torrey Academy to become a full-time mom was an obvious choice for me, but it was a challenge to walk away and surrender control of the program to others. The fact that Torrey Academy has continued to serve families for twenty years is evidence that good has continued to abound and I was not needed for that good to happen. Roles can be filled and emptied and filled again. The best programs and institutions outlast their founding season just as Torrey Academy outlasted me.

III. Authentic collaboration makes us better.

A role may be filled by different people at different times, but when we serve in a role on a team, we can see that a healthy team has the potential to be much greater than the sum of its parts. In my first years leading Torrey Academy, I didn’t really understand what teamwork meant or what it might signify beyond a catchphrase. Thankfully, I had colleagues who were patient and didn’t give up on me. Through their coaching, book recommendations, and examples, I began to understand. I discovered that, even within a hierarchical leadership structure, true collaboration is essential, and its success depends on vulnerability, trust, and honest communication—traits which are also hallmarks of the best Torrey Academy class discussions when students take the lead in pursuing truth together dialectically. It is only by truly listening to every member of the team (or class), and by tuning in to what constituents are really saying, that we can come to understand the fuller picture and make better decisions. This requires humility, both with regard to ourselves as individuals and also with regard to the team itself. No merely human team is sufficient unto itself and no team of colleagues is static and everlasting.

IV. Programs and institutions are replaceable and temporary.

Not only particular roles and particular teams, but even whole institutions are ultimately dispensable. School, thank God, is not eternal. And education doesn’t save us. The time for learning from books will end for each one of us as we cross over into that greater reality, “Into another intensity/For a further union, a deeper communion.”1 At its best, Torrey Academy has been no more than a shadow of the communion and knowing to come. Other programs and organizations, which have existed or will come to exist, may offer similar glimpses of glory. No mere program is permanent or perfect.

V. We each must tend our work regardless.

Rather than despair when faced with our finitude and the impermanence and imperfection of our labors, we can find rest and liberation by discovering “not less of love but expanding/Of love beyond desire.”2 As T. S. Eliot reminds us, detachment is not the same as indifference. While our love may begin with “attachment to our own field of action,” it must expand until we can see our work for what it is: our humble and necessary offering, each undertaking “a new beginning.”3 And while we may find our offerings feeble and see that “what there is to conquer/[…] has already been discovered/Once or twice, or several times, by men who one cannot hope/To emulate,” we must still

[…] fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. […]
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. 4

So we carry on with tenacity, for our work is duty and joy and worship.

VI. What is loved endures.

While our labors may be feeble and while we may each be replaceable in our roles, we are yet much more than the sum of our roles and actions. We wear so many hats they can threaten to weigh us down. Love strips off all roles and embraces the self beneath. In our deepest selves we are not our roles, not our work, not our resumés or grades. We are not what others think of us, not what we think of ourselves. We are not our poor or better choices, not our failings, not our vices. We’re not our virtues nor our wins. We are not students, teachers, siblings, children, parents, spouses. We are simply Christ’s beloved. As his own loved ones, we are clothed in his righteousness and radiate with the unbearably bright worth that he has poured into each one who bears his name and seal.

What shall we do then with such a weight of glory? We must never cease to honor the beauty and splendor of each created other—just as Torrey Academy has continued to offer a curriculum and pedagogy that reverences the sacred dignity of each student in an atmosphere of wonder and respect, gratitude and awe. As much as we are able, we must keep holding fast to the awareness of just how much we and others are individually loved—our worth is immeasurable for our lives are hidden with Christ in God.

With our shared weight of glory, we must work and also play. We must unite our avocation with our vocation. “We must be still and still moving,” for “to make an end is to make a beginning.”5 We must do the work that comes to hand without requirement, with no promise of permanence, no guarantee of greatness. Our love must expand beyond attachment to all finite endeavors so that we may be clothed in Love itself.

So I mourn and do not mourn. Christ has shown us that all shall be well, for what is loved endures though all else fall away.

1 Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets, “East Coker,” V, l.34–35. 2 Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets, “Little Gidding,” III, l.8b–9a. 3 Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets, “Little Gidding,” III, l.11b; “East Coker,” V, l.8a 4 Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets, “East Coker,” V, l.11b–14a, 15b–17a, 18. 5 Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets, “East Coker,” V, l.33, “Little Gidding,” V, l.2

Survival Guide for COVID-Forced Homeschooling

Choosing the craziness of homeschooling is one thing, but having it forced upon you is quite another. Thankfully there are somewhere around two million voluntary homeschoolers in the U.S., and they’re ready to WELCOME ALL THE HUDDLED MASSES to their ranks—virtually, of course.

If you are one of the many who have found yourself suddenly homeschooling against your will, I’d like to help. Maybe you will find homeschooling to be a new personal hell, or maybe it will grow on you. In either case, here are some very practical tips for getting through it for the duration of the pandemic.

As much as you might be tempted to give in to your kids’ requests for more and more screen time—after all it does seem comforting and helpfully distracting during this crazy and stressful time, and there is your sanity to consider!—still the evidence shows that too much screen time increases anxiety rather than alleviating it. So limiting tech time and sticking with a loose routine are key to maintaining a positive and productive home environment.

This is great time to remind kids that screen time is not a right but rather a privilege that can be earned or lost. By creating a daily checklist for each child, you can allow them to direct their own time and earn screen time, or some other reward, by doing so. For this to work, you’ll need to be sure to set screen time controls to limit children’s access to your devices and home computers. Lock all browsers and other apps on any devices that students will use for audiobooks and math review so that students can avoid temptation to get distracted with other activities during listening/math time.

Here’s a sample checklist for grade-school students through highschool which you can copy, paste, and modify to fit your family. The embedded, italicized comments are notes for the parent which you’d delete from your personalized student checklist before printing it for your kids. After the list, there are a few notes and further suggestions, especially audiobook suggestions! (Note: There are links to other websites and resources in this post, but I do not benefit financially from any of the links or content of this post.)

Sample Daily Checklist

Dear Student, you may earn up to one hour of screen time by completing everything on the following checklist of activities by 4:00 p.m.:

  • Complete any required assignments from your regular school (if applicable).
  • Practice your musical instrument (if applicable).
  • Listen to a pre-approved audiobook for at least 20 minutes (Use a longer minimum if your child can stay focused!), and tell your parent or caregiver what happened in the story or passage. (For the importance of telling back, see an earlier post here.)
  • Play outside for at least an hour; wear sunscreen and/or a hat! Take a drawing pad or notebook and draw something interesting or beautiful that you find outdoors. (Consider incorporating additional aspects of nature study as well.)
  • Read out loud with a family member—you can read to a sibling, listen to a sibling read to you, read with a parent, and/or FaceTime/Skype/Zoom with a grandparent or friend. (This is a great way to both build family connections and also work on oral reading fluency through practice. Make sure students read from a book that is at or near their level of reading ability so they don’t get too frustrated.)
  • Spend 5 to 10 minutes copying lines from a poem or classic literature in your best handwriting—be sure to copy the punctuation, spelling, and capitalization correctly, too!
  • Help with chores around the house.
  • Do something creative such as building with LEGOs, baking, or crafting.
  • Spend at least 45 minutes doing something active such as going for a walk or bike ride, stretching, doing crunches and such, doing an exercise video/Just Dance/etc.—or just put on music and make your own moves!
  • Listen to an approved audiobook for another 20 minutes (or longer minimum!) or more, and tell your parent or caregiver what happened in the story or passage.
  • Do at least 15 minutes of math fact drill and show your results to your parent or caregiver. (This is for elementary students or other students who need to review basic math facts. Try this app: Math Fact Master: Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication, and Division; you can set the app activities to each child’s ability. For older students, or for more math topics, consider the ALEKS online math program, or Art of Problem Solving, especially for Algebra and above.)

Bonus Challenges: (Set a special prize that can be earned only by completing some or all of these extra accomplishments.)

  • Memorize a poem and recite it to a family member or friend. Then memorize another, and then another! Try to remember the first ones while learning the new.
  • Learn to diagram sentences. (Best for middle school and up, maybe advanced upper elementary students as well.)
  • Learn touch typing and/or increase your touch typing speed. Set a words-per-minute (adjusted for accuracy) goal.
  • Memorize the 70 basic English phonograms and their corresponding sounds. (For more information on the phonograms and best ways to teach phonics, see here and here.)

If you do nothing else, quality audiobooks and outdoor time are incredibly valuable and would provide a wonderful education.

I recommend that every parent, homeschooling or otherwise, check out this free talk by Andrew Pudewa, “Nurturing Competent Communicators“—he explains just how essential read-alouds and audiobooks are to students’ linguistic development and communication skills.

Pudewa’s program, the Institute for Excellence in Writing, is also responding to the COVID-19 crisis by giving away free curriculum. I especially recommend their Linguistic Development through Poetry Memorization course. They are giving away the downloadable teacher’s manual, student pages, and the MP3 audio for the entire first level of the course!

Audiobook Lists!

I recommend giving your students a list of pre-approved audiobooks to choose from for the assigned audiobook time. Audible is offering free audiobooks for kids as long as schools are closed, and many audiobooks can also be found for free through public libraries using Hoopla and/or Overdrive/Libby. Below are my personal recommendations by age bracket based on what is available digitally for free through one or more of those three sources. (Scribd has even more audiobooks, and they have a 30-day free trial; check out The Hobbit, The Lord of Rings, and other books by J. R. R. Tolkien there!)

There are so many great and good books that are not on these lists, but it’s a start! Also, many students would benefit from reading books both below and above their age bracket; these are fluid categories.

Preschool and up:

  • Winnie the Pooh and other A. A. Milne books
  • Beatrix Potter stories
  • Edward Lear poems
  • Dr. Seuss books
  • Stone Soup
  • Aesop fables
  • Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales
  • The Boy Who Drew Cats
  • Arnold Lobel books
  • Thornton Burgess stories and books
  • Other folk tales and fairy tales

Elementary and up:

  • The Birchbark House and The Game of Silence by Louise Erdrich
  • Charlotte’s Web (via Overdrive/Libby)
  • Trumpet of the Swan (via Overdrive/Libby)
  • Stuart Little (via Overdrive/Libby)
  • Penderwicks series (via Overdrive/Libby)
  • Pippi Longstocking (via Overdrive/Libby)
  • Narnia series by C. S. Lewis
  • The Princess and the Goblin and other children’s books and fairy tales (e.g. The Wise Woman) by George MacDonald
  • Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Heidi
  • Jules Verne books
  • Anne of Green Gables books
  • Lewis Carroll books
  • The Children’s Homer
  • Robin Hood
  • Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
  • The Swiss Family Robinson
  • The Secret Garden
  • The Little Princess
  • The Wind in the Willow
  • Misty of Chincoteague
  • James Herriot’s Treasury for Children and other animal stories
  • Black Beauty
  • King Arthur and his Knights by Howard Pyle
  • The Little Duke
  • Edward Lear poems
  • Fairy Tales and Folks Tales (They’re for all ages!)
  • Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb

Middle School and up:

  • The Reluctant Dragon
  • Perelandra and Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis
  • Jack London stories
  • The Witchcraft of Salem Village (nonfiction)
  • Letters of a Woman Homesteader (nonfiction)
  • Robinson Crusoe
  • Edith Nesbit books
  • Sherlock Holmes stories
  • Stephen Crane stories
  • Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl (nonfiction)
  • Men of Iron by Howard Pyle
  • My Antonia
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel
  • Watership Down
  • The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (nonfiction)
  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
  • The View from Saturday

Highschool (and advanced middleschool readers):

  • The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis and other books by C. S. Lewis
  • Flatland by Edwin Abbott
  • Shakespeare’s plays (select unabridged, full-cast) and sonnets
  • Beowulf
  • Charles Dickens stories
  • Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries
  • Classic American Short Stories
  • Edgar Allen Poe stories and poems
  • Jane Austen novels
  • Ivanhoe
  • Jane Eyre
  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  • Washington Irving stories
  • Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
  • The Crucible by Arthur Miller
  • The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
  • James Fenimore Cooper novels
  • Plays by Aeschylus
  • The War of the Worlds
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
  • Wuthering Heights
  • G. K. Chesterton’s ficton and non-fiction

E-Books Students can Read Aloud

  • Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel (early readers and up)
  • Books by Cynthia Rylant (early readers and up)
  • Biscuit books (early readers and up)
  • Fancy Nancy books (early readers and up)
  • Magic Treehouse series & Fact Trackers series—read in order on Overdrive/Libby! (first chapter books)
  • The Boxcar Children series, book 1 through 19 (first chapter books)
  • Erdrich’s Birchbark House series—Listen to book 1 first! (more advanced chapter books)
  • Charlotte’s Web on Overdrive/Libby (more advanced chapter books)
  • Any e-book version of books from the elementary and middleschool list (for confident oral readers in upper elementary through high school)
  • Any e-book version of books from the highschool list (for advanced high school readers)

For more ideas for homeschooling in a crisis situation, you might checkout Ambleside Online’s Emergency Learning Plan. Their curriculum is always free.

Education isn’t limited to schools; some folks learn better without them.

image credit:

Comparing Phonics Programs

Writing involves a complex and hierarchical skill set. Think of all the ground-work that must be done before a person can write an essay. The student begins as an infant acquiring spoken words. She eventually begins to string words into babbled sentences and then into reels of spontaneous spoken narrative—about her thoughts, what just happened, what she’s seen or observed. In elementary school each student has to muscle up to the daunting projects of phonemic awareness, phonics, penmanship, and spelling. Then come years of fluency, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing development. Phew! It’s a lot.

Let’s take a quick look at one of the primary building blocks to reading and writing success: phonics. It’s never too late to fill in any gaps with a student—or even as an adult teacher/parent!

In a previous post, I highlighted three popular phonics programs that are all based on the best research currently available. This post takes a closer look at the pros and cons of the different programs.

Spell to Write and Read, my favorite, is known to be difficult to get off the ground. And it’s true. Spell to Write and Read (SWR) requires a good deal of teacher time and investment. At first, SWR can be difficult to implement because you, as the teacher, have to learn the program (and wrap your mind around all the spelling concepts you weren’t taught yourself in school!) and then map out an individualized plan for your student(s). While this makes it a lot to learn at first on the teacher’s end, the upside is that it is extremely flexible for personalizing for individual students and situations. Personally, I’ve found it totally worth it. And after the first year or so of figuring it out, it’s pretty smooth sailing.

All About Spelling/All About Reading and Logic of English are both based on much of the same research as SWR. Those are good options, too, especially if you want everything laid out for you grade-by-grade. I received a review copy of All About Spelling (AAS) along with the PAL materials from IEW. I tried using it a bit with my youngest, and it’s a good program. I haven’t seen Logic of English (LoE) in person, but you can get a pretty good feel for the curriculum from their website.

Pros & Cons:

AAS is easier to use than SWR in that every lesson is laid out for you in order and scripted; it’s an “open and go” curriculum—after the initial set-up of the materials. However, AAS doesn’t necessarily take any less teacher time than SWR because each lesson requires intensive teacher-student interaction. AAS is distinctive in using “letter tiles” for hands-on phonogram learning. This might be especially helpful for children who are very young or who have difficulty writing letters with pen or pencil.

Like AAS, LoE lays everything out for you. Unlike AAS, LoE has student workbooks with full-color activity and practice sheets that students can mostly do on their own. Additionally, the teacher’s guide provides scripted lessons as well as other suggested multi-sensory activities to further student learning. Some of these workbook pages and suggested activities seem unnecessary to me—either busy work or too cutesy-clever. For example, in the Foundations A Teacher’s Manual sample page online, they suggest eating grapes, gingerbread, and granola when learning the letter ‘g’ as well as wearing green and gold and maybe learning about geckos, etc.  

All three programs—SWR, AAS, and LoE—are multi-year programs that teach the 70+ basic English phonograms and 28 foundational spelling rules. All three use flash cards, recommend games, and encourage other multi-sensory learning processes and activities.

As I see it, SWR offers three main advantages over the other programs that are based on the same research:

  1. SWR is a total steal since the initial package covers you for phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling, plus other language arts foundations for grades K through 12 and beyond. It’s comprehensive. And all for about $100 as an initial investment, plus $6 to $12 per student in consumable learning logs each school year. Compare this with around $50/year for AAS and with $176 to $213 per year of LoE! 
  2. SWR is designed to be adaptable for any student at any level and at any age. While this makes it a bit unwieldy at first for the teacher, it’s a powerful benefit. You’re not stuck going through a bunch of pre-designed lessons ordered for generic classes/students; you have the flexibility to use the provided diagnostic tools and lesson components as best suits the individual person and situation. The corollary of this is that there are no cutesy gimmicks to wade through, but there are tons of practical hands-on tips for multi-sensory learning organized by skill or concept in the SWR teacher’s guide. SWR does not distract teachers or students with unnecessary activities or program elements. Which leads us to reason number three. . .
  3. SWR offers the most effective, efficient, and sound phonics program. If you read SWR author Wanda Sanseri’s speech to the Oregon senate, you might note some principles that make SWR unique. Instead of the “phony,” “pokey”, or “fickle” phonics of other programs, SWR offers all of the 70 basic phonograms and 28 spelling rules early and fast through a direct, uncluttered method that is systematic and intensive. After one year of SWR, a student will have all of the basic phonics knowledge they need to start reading almost any English book. From what I can tell of AAS and LoE, this is not the case. A student would have to complete multiple years of either of those programs in order to cover the same breadth and depth of phonics knowledge delivered in the suggested plan for the initial year of SWR. (And AAS is meant to be combined with All About Reading as a separate track—for more money!) This is why SWR is not merely a spelling program per se, but rather a comprehensive language arts foundation in phonics, spelling, reading, and beyond. (It even covers manuscript penmanship and an impressive amount of grammar.)

So if colorful student workbooks and/or prescribed, ready-made lesson tracks are important to you, SWR is probably not a good pick for your homeschool. But if you’re looking for a resource that will equip you to be the best possible language arts teacher for your students and give you the best bang for your buck, SWR is where it’s at. 

N.B., I am not affiliated with SWR in any way, and I receive no material benefit for endorsing the curriculum.  I’m just a fan girl who’s been happily using the program for about eight years now with both my own children and also other students.

[This post originally appeared on a personal blog and has been revised.]

Outdoor Life & Nature Study

In Janary at the Saint Emmelia Homeschool Conference, I had the privilege of co-leading a session with a wonderful colleague on incorporating nature study and outdoor play in the home school. Elizabeth Lewis did a fabulous job discussing the hands-on details of gardening with children. An audio recording is available online (see our talk titled, “Land Ahoy! Making Gardening and Natural Play Part of Your Homeschool” from the 2019 South Conference). While I don’t have Mrs. Lewis’s material to share, here are the notes from my part of the presentation dealing with outdoor life and nature study:

Research & Trends—Nature Time Is Critical to Spiritual, Psychological & Physical Well-being

  • Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder (2005) drew attention to the alarming, growing divide between nature and children.
  • Screen time is replacing outdoor time and is leading to depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, low academic performance, and other problems. (See
  • A growing profusion of studies continue to investigate the psychological benefits of the natural world:
    • People who lived in city neighborhoods with at least 20 to 30% vegetation cover showed reduced levels of depression, anxiety, and stress.[1]
    • The number of visible birds of any kind in an urban neighborhood correlate with lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress.[2]
    • The Japanese forestry ministry coined a phrase—shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”—for the increasingly popular pastime of intentional relaxation in forest environments which has been shown to heighten feelings of well-being, lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, and even improved immune system functionality.[3]
  • Even short visits to urban green spaces have positive results and benefits.[4]
  • There is a “forest school” movement in western European with roots reaching back to the 1800s; currently there are over 1,500 waldkindergartens (forest kindergartens) in Germany which have resurrected educational reformer Friedrich Froebel’s ideal of children learning through hands-on outdoor experiences.[5]
  • Building on the Scandinavian heritage of friluftsliv, literally, “fresh air life,” hundreds of nature schools similarly thrive in Denmark and Sweden.[6]
  • More than one-hundred Japanese waldkindergartens (a number that was expected to double by 2014) address the worries of many parents “that Japan is becoming too stressed and high tech and there is not time to communicate with nature.”[7]
  • In the U.S., a small but growing number of forest kindergarten leaders have joined together to found the American Forest Kindergarten Association which shares information about the many benefits supported by “the growing body of compelling scientific evidence” which indicates that “introducing children to the natural world at an early age has a profoundly positive impact on their mental, physical, and social well-being.” A handful of similar organizations—such as Natural Start Alliance, Nature Explore, and Forest Schools USA—are also devoted to helping establish nature preschools throughout the country.

Foundation for Nature Learning in the Christian Home

  • Many saints have shown us how holiness reunites us with nature: St. Francis, St. Herman of Alaska, St. Seraphim of Sarov, St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, St. Blaise, Bishop of Sebaste, and many more!
  • The garden of Eden remains an important image of a full life with God. Like Adam and Eve, we are entrusted with stewardship over creation. And, like Adam and Eve, our vocation begins with wonder and enjoyment.
  • The natural world directs us to the Creator and heavenC. S. Lewis describes nature as a “first sketch” of “that greater glory”[8] promised to those to thirst and who overcome. “We are summoned,” says Lewis, “to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects.”[9] God summons us to experience a foretaste of his glory in the riches of his creation.
  • Familiarity with nature awakens and sustains the aesthetic sense, a right sense of beauty, and also a love of creation that motivates stewardship.
  • “Forest Schooling” approaches involve a deep respect for children that is essentially compatible with a Christian understanding of persons as image-bearers and participants in divinity. Nature learning flourishes with child-led exploration where teachers are guides and fellow learners before God, the Creator.
  • Many contemporary homeschoolers are revisiting the writings and wisdom of Christian educator, Charlotte Mason, who advocated for nature immersion play, or “out-of-door life for the children,” in 1886, long before it was trendy.[10]

Nature Study & Outdoor Life in Practice

Charlotte Mason’s recommendations from more than a century ago remain sound. She suggests ways to weave in informal, age-appropriate lessons during outdoor time in subjects as varied as language arts, geography, botany, biology, physical education, and world languages.

1.     Meals & days in the open—Mason recommends dining outside whenever the weather permits and also taking the children out for “long hours” (4 to 6 hours) on “every tolerably fine day” or as much as possible. Children should be allowed to wonder and explore for most of that time, but some “vigorous play” and a short “lesson or two” can also be worked in. This applies mostly to children under 9, but is wonderful for all ages.

2.     “Sightseeing” & “Picture-Painting”—Habits of attention and observation can be honed through narration games/activities and “taking mental photographs.” E.g., “Tell me all you can about [an object or “some patch of landscape”].” Supply names for flora, fauna, items, or concepts so that vocabulary and concepts expand.

3.     Flowers, Trees & Living Creatures—Explore, identify, and learn to recognize and name the flowers and trees, birds and insects, lizards and mammals of your neighborhood and region. Use field guides, keep nature notebooks, and track cycles of growth and change in a “Nature’s Firsts” calendar. Don’t underrate the “kindly fellowship” of family pets. Encourage careful observation and beginning habits of deduction.

4.     “Living Books”—Read books, fiction and non-fiction, that portray facts about flora and fauna in a beautiful and compelling way that sparks the affections and imagination.

5.     “Out-of-Door Geography”—Parents can weave in informal lessons in geography by drawing attention to and naming geographical features of the land and waterways; directing children’s attention to observe the position and movement of the sun, moon, and stars; asking/answering questions about clouds, wind, and weather; introducing children to concepts of distance, time, and direction, as well as to compass and map skills.

6.     “The French Lesson”—Mason encourages oral instruction in a modern language starting informally at a young age. The lesson should be short (~10 minutes; 2 to 6 new words per day + review) and worked naturally into the outdoor time as the words taught tie into the sights, sounds, and activities at hand.

7.     “Noisy Games”—Part of the outdoor time can be devoted to vigorous games that involve the whole body and contribute to well-rounded physical health, e.g. jumping rope, climbing, and various games children select for themselves and pass along to each other.

8.     Scouting, Stalking, and Imaginative Play—In the outdoors, children can track small animals and birds by sound, scat, paw prints, etc. They can re-enact adventures from their readings and role-play characters who captivate them such as Robin Hood or Sacagawea.

9.     “Walks in Bad Weather”—Mason encourages parents to not only take their children outside in temperate seasons but also to celebrate the unique offerings of each season. She suggests “an hour and a half in the morning and as long in the afternoon.” 

10.  “The Child and Mother-Nature”—While Mason encourages parents to integrate short lessons, she is firm about respecting the child’s personhood. She insists on child-led exploration with a caregiver near to answer the occasional question or provide the occasional name or fact. “The mother must refrain from too much talk” so that Mother-Nature can teach directly. Mason encourages the infrequent “look and gesture of delight” as the parent models delight in God’s creation.

Practical Considerations & Resources

Finding nature:

  • Your back yard and the street where you live
  • Neighborhood parks and green spaces
  • Local arboretums, Audubon societies, parks, and nature preserves

Scheduling nature time:

  • Regional climate
  • Homeschool routine and yearly rhythm

Staying safe:

  • Weather-appropriate clothing
  • Bug spray/repellent
  • Sunhats & sunscreen

Nature study supplies:

  • Nature notebooks
  • Pencils, colored pencils/dry-brush watercolor tools
  • Nature’s Firsts calendar
  • Field Guides
  • Living books


  • Start wherever you are, and do what you can.
  • “Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good.”
  • Play to your strengths, and consider outsourcing for non-strength areas.

“It would be well if all we persons in authority, parents and all who act for parents, could make up our minds that there is no sort of knowledge to be got in these early years so valuable to children as that which they get for themselves of the world they live in. Let them once get in touch with Nature, and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through life. We were all meant to be naturalists, each in his degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things.” — Charlotte Mason


Books & Links for the Parent:

“Nature Study.” Ambleside Online.

Kenny, Erin. Forest Kindergartens: The Cedarsong Way. Cedarsong Nature School, 2013.

Mason, Charlotte. Home Education: Training and Educating Children Under Nine. Tyndale House, Wheaton, Illinois, 1989 (1935).

Sobel, David., Ed. Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens: The Handbook for Outdoor Learning. Redleaf Press, 2015.

Living Books to Read Aloud:

Ambleside Online: (geography/natural history/science by year)

Memorial Press: (esp. Insects and Trees)

Simply Charlotte Mason:

Nature-Immersion Learning Support Organizations & Research (Benefits & Best Practices):

American Forest Kindergarten Association:

Arbor Day/Dimensions Foundation:

Natural Start Alliance:

Nature Explore:

North American Association for Environmental Education:

Christianity & Nature:

Aidan Hart Sacred Icons, Icon commissioned by Panorthodox Concern For Animals,

Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, Orthodox Environmentalism—

Orthodoxy and Animals—

Theology and Ecology: English Saints and the Animal World—

Safety Standards:

“Child Care Weather Watch,” Iowa Department Public Health, Healthy Child Care Iowa. Champaign Urbana Public Health District. 2009.  See also

Texas Master Naturalists:

Texas Master Naturalist certificate program, Texas Parks & Wildlife Foundation:

Texas Master Naturalist organization, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension:

[1] Daniel T. C. Cox, et al. “Doses of Neighborhood Nature: The Benefits for Mental Health of Living with Nature.” BioScience, vol. 67, no. 2, 2017, pp. 147-155. doi: 10.1093/biosci/biw173.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Livni, Ephrat. “The Japanese Practice of ‘Forest Bathing’ Is Scientifically Proven to Improve Your Health.” Quartz, 12 Oct. 2016,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Quetteville, Harry de. “Waldkindergärten: the Forest Nurseries Where Children Learn in Nature’s Classroom.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 18 Oct. 2008,

[6] Guy, Geoffrey. Forest School Essays.,

[7] Quoted in Neate, Rupert. “Campfire Kids: Going Back to Nature with Forest Kindergartens.” Spiegel Online, 22 Nov. 2013,

[8] Lewis, C. S. “‘The Weight of Glory.’” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996, 25–40.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Mason, Charlotte. Home Education: Training and Educating Children Under Nine. Tyndale House, Wheaton, Illinois, 1989.

[This post originally appeared on a personal blog and has been revised.]

Image attribution: Bureau of Land Management #conservationlands15 Social Media Takeover, May 15, Top 15 Trails to Blaze on BLM’s National Conservation Lands used under Creative Commons license

What Is Demanded of Us: Charlotte Mason Admonishes Us to Get on Our Game

Many private and home educators have been rediscovering and implementing the ideas of British educator, Charlotte Mason, and with good reason. She understood children and respected their value as full persons made in the image of God. Throughout her long career teaching children, training other teachers, running schools, and organizing parent-run schools, she refined a truly lovely and life-giving approach to educating that is still just as valid and valuable now as it was when she lived in the mid 1800s to the 1920s. Thankfully, she wrote down her wisdom in her six-volume set of books now in the public domain, and we can continue to glean from it today. In fact, many organizations have sprung up to help people follow Charlotte Mason’s educational plan as closely and faithfully as possible. These organizations provide many fantastic resources for parents and teachers.

Yet, when trying to discern the best curricular choice or course of action, the most helpful question a contemporary Charlotte Mason teacher and parent can ask is not, “What would Charlotte Mason do?” or even, “What has Charlotte Mason recommended that teachers and parents do?” but rather “What would Charlotte Mason do if she lived now and were in my situation?”

Because Charlotte Mason, in her day, would have gone home from teaching mid-afternoon to a child-free, spouse-free house and a nice, quiet cup of tea.

She also recommended that a mother outsource nurse-maid/nursery duties so that the children have mother only at her best. (See Volume I: Home Education, I.iv, pp. 17-18.)

So, if you are married, with children, and homeschooling, you are already not doing what Charlotte Mason did during her time, or even what she recommended doing.

But what would she do if she were married, homeschooling, and living now in the twenty-first century? Now that is a different question. And an interesting one.

Charlotte Mason is one of my heroes for many reasons including not only her brilliant insight into how children best learn, but also her dedication to following and investigating the best thought and research available to her at the time. For example, she studied the latest, breaking findings related to the physiology of the brain and frequently referred to it in her own writings as a basis for many of her practical recommendations for parents and teachers. She read widely in various fields related to child development, psychology, educational theory, and natural law. She was eager to circumspectly incorporate “whatever new light modern research puts in our way.”

In the Preface to the Fourth Edition of Volume I, she writes,

My attempt in the following volume is to suggest to parents and teachers a method of education resting upon a basis of natural law; and to touch, in this connection, upon a mother’s duties to her children. In venturing to speak on this latter subject, I do so with the sincerest deference to mothers, believing that, in the words of a wise teacher of men, “the woman receives from the Spirit of God Himself the intuitions into the child’s character, the capacity of appreciating its strength and its weakness, the faculty of calling forth the one and sustaining the other, in which lies the mystery of education, apart from which all its rules and measures are utterly vain and ineffectual.” But just in proportion as a mother has this peculiar insight as regards her own children she will, I think, feel her need of a knowledge of the general principles of education, founded upon the nature and the needs of all children. And this knowledge of the science of education, not the best of mothers will get from above, seeing that we do not often receive as a gift that which we have the means of getting by our own efforts. [emphasis mine]

We have, she tells us, a maternal duty to study the science of education.

Under “Some Preliminary Considerations,” she further clarifies what it looks like for mothers to “owe a ‘thinking love’ to their Children”: (I note here how she herself quotes other contemporary educational thinkers, such as Pestalozzi, revealing her own commitment to ongoing study of developing educational thought.)

“The mother is qualified,” says Pestalozzi, “and qualified by the Creator Himself, to become the principal agent in the development of her child; … and what is demanded of her is––a thinking love ….”

We are waking up to our duties and in proportion as mothers become more highly educated and efficient, they will […] take it up as their profession––that is, with the diligence, regularity, and punctuality which men bestow on their professional labours. That the mother may know what she is about, and may come thoroughly furnished to her work, she should have something more than a hearsay acquaintance with the theory of education, and with those conditions of the child’s nature upon which such theory rests. [emphasis mine]

These strongly-worded admonitions suggest to me that, if Charlotte Mason were alive today, she would urge us not to look back to her late-1800s/early-1900s curricular recommendations as a static educational plan to imitate without question. On the contrary! She would urge us rather to rouse ourselves to get on our game and continue to research.

If we want to imitate Charlotte Mason, we ought to look at, evaluate, and incorporate the best of current educational research and related fields.

Take reading instruction and phonics, for instance. Since Mason’s time, we have learned much more about how English is best taught and learned.

Just within the homeschool world, there are now several powerful phonics/spelling programs available that have recently been developed on the basis of the ground-breaking research Orton and Gillingham conducted on English phonograms and spelling rules shortly after Mason’s time.

Additionally, because of both national legislation like No Child Left Behind and also because of the school system’s need to accommodate a wide diversity of students (including those who do not speak English as a first language at home), much research has been done on how to best teach reading and writing (e.g. phonics vs. whole word reading instruction and such).

Would Charlotte Mason encourage us to ignore all that and keep doing what worked best for her in turn-of-the-century England? Her admonitions and her own example make that highly unlikely.

Best research (like the meta-study here; get it free at a university library) suggests that a systematic phonics program is by far the best foundation for reading and writing. The whole-word approach that rolled through U.S. schools on and off during the last several decades has been debunked. And, while informal, laissez-faire approaches can accomplish good, systematic phonics remains the most sound and reliable method for ensuring success for students of all abilities.

Curriculum author, Wanda Sanseri, further argues that a program that overtly teaches the 70 basic English phonograms along with the 28 foundational spelling rules is the best kind of systematic phonics instruction. Her presentation to the Oregon senate is revelatory and compelling. She bridges the gap between Orton-Gillingham and contemporary practice.

Since Sanseri delivered her presentation, several programs have debuted in the homeschool market that draw on the Orton-Gillingham research base. I personally prefer Sanseri’s Spell to Write and Read, but there are several other curricular options that follow the same research and are also great. Two such programs are All About Reading/All About Spelling and Logic of English. Before any of these, there was also The Writing Road to Reading. All of these programs are great with different trade-offs. Different programs will certainly work better for different families depending on the needs and temperaments of those involved.

Discussing these options and the underlying research lands us firmly in the spirit of Charlotte Mason’s approach to education. So, rather than closing off curricular options because they do not seem to neatly match the instructional progression prescribed by Mason more than a century ago, let us think critically and research widely in imitation of Mason herself, our beloved paragon of “a thinking love.”

[This post first appeared on a personal blog and has been revised.]

Narration: Path to Writing Fluency

In April I was honored to present at Houston Baptist University’s annual Writer’s Conference. This year the conference focused on teaching writing, and I enjoyed sharing from my exploration into the art of narration as a writing practice. Here are my presentation notes:

Overview: Narration, or retelling, is a gentle yet powerful way to develop both writing fluency and also reading comprehension. Consistent practice with narration builds habits of attention and observation, depth of understanding, and breadth of vocabulary and syntax as students imprint the writing of master authors through retelling. Teachers can incorporate oral and written narration in the classroom to help students benefit from their readings and verbalize their experiences.

What is Narration?

  • Narration is a natural and universal human activity.
  • Narration is retelling experiences, observations, interactions, facts, story.
  • Narration can be oral or written, even visual or kinetic.

“Narrating is an art, like poetry-making or painting, because it is there, in every child’s mind, waiting to be discovered, and is not the result of any process of disciplinary education. A creative fiat calls it forth. […] This amazing gift with which normal children are born is allowed to lie fallow in their education. Bobbie will come home with a heroic narrative of a fight he has seen between ‘Duke’ and a dog in the street. It is wonderful! He has seen everything, and he tells everything with splendid vigour in the true epic vein; […] here, if we have eyes to see and grace to build, is the ground-plan of his education.”

—Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 231

Benefits of Narration in the Learning Process

  • Narration is simple and easy to implement.
    • It requires no special materials or costs.
    • It requires very little teacher preparation time.
    • It can be accomplished in short time slots during the school day.
    • It taps into natural capacity and appeals to students.
  • Narration is versatile.
    • It can be used across grade levels and subject areas.
    • It can be used with groups, pairs, and individual students.
    • It is accessible to students of all abilities & easy to adapt for individual needs.
    • It can be oral or written, verbal or nonverbal.
  • Narration is effective.
    • It develops foundational habits of attention, observation, and critical thinking.
    • It helps develop reading comprehension, recall, and depth of understanding.
    • It links writing to reading and allows students to imprint style and structure.
    • It does double duty as an ongoing informal assessment tool.

The Process of Narration

A basic lesson outline is as follows: (See Mason, Home Education, pp. 232–3.)

  1. Preparation for Input—Review context if applicable; possibly introduce key terms.
  2. Input—Read passage aloud to students or have students read silently. (Input can also be from non-print media, lecture/interaction, observation, and experience.)
  3. Narration—Have students retell what they have heard/read/observed.
  4. Follow-up—Discuss and reinforce topics or questions of interest from the passage.

“But, it will be said, reading […] and then narrating or writing what has been read or some part of it,—all this is mere memory work. The value of this criticism may be readily tested; will the critic read before turning off his light a leading article from a newspaper, say, or a chapter from Boswell or Jane Austen, or one of Lamb’s Essays; then will he put himself to sleep by narrating silently what he has read. He will not be satisfied with the result but he will find that in the act of narrating every power of his mind comes into play, that points and bearings which he had not observed are brought out; that the whole is visualized and brought into relief in an extraordinary way; in fact, that scene or argument has become a part of his personal experience; he knows, he has assimilated what he has read. This is not memory work.”

—Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, p. 16

Principles for Implementing Narration at Home & School

Several guiding principles and best practices to keep in mind: (See Glass ch. 3.)

  • Select only high-quality material with rich vocabulary and literary merit.
  • For greatest benefit, allow students to hear/read the passage only once before narrating.
  • Develop a student’s autonomous ability to guide their own narrations without external questions or prompts.
  • Do not interrupt, or allow other students to interrupt, a student’s narration.
  • Allow students to complete/correct a peer’s narration when it is their turn.
  • Correct, complete, question, or discuss narrations only after the students finish narrating.
  • Request a second narration of some passages at regular intervals.

“‘The mind can know nothing save what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put to the mind by itself’ […] This is what happens in the narrating of a passage read: each new consecutive incident or statement arrives because the mind asks itself,—‘What next?’”

—Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, pp. 16–17

Scope and Sequence for Narration & Composition

Narration skills develop through consistent practice over time:

  • Under 6 years old: Enjoy and encourage spontaneous oral narration. Don’t require it.
  • Grades 1–3: Require oral narration of read-aloud episodes once to several times/week.
  • Grades 4–6: Continue oral narration and add written narration 1 to 5 times/week.
  • Grades 7–9: Continue oral & daily written narration; develop writing fluency & composition skills. Fluently write 150 to 300 words/day; follow basic rules of mechanics.
  • Grades 10–12: Continue oral & written narration; study the craft of writing and refine composition skills through formal writing assignments, editing, and revision.

“Children should read books, not about books and about authors […] Their reading should be carefully ordered, for the most part in historical sequence; they should read to know, whether it be Robinson Crusoe or Huxley’s Physiography; their knowledge should be tested, not by questions, but by the oral (and occasionally the written) reproduction of a passage after one reading; all further processes that we concern ourselves about in teaching, the mind performs for itself; and lastly, this sort of reading should be the chief business in the class room.”

—Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, pp. 341–2


  • “AmblesideOnline Narration Discussion.” AO Narration,, 2017,
  • Breckenridge, Donna-Jean. “AmblesideOnline: Some Thoughts on Narration.”, 2017,
  • Glass, Karen. Know and Tell: The Art of Narration. Karen Glass, 2018.
  • Hilgeman, Mariellyn. Now, Tell It to Me: Using Retelling for Literacy and Language Development. Purposeful Design Publications, 2008.
  • Mason, Charlotte. A Philosophy of Education: Curiosity—The Pathway to Creative Learning. Tyndale House, 1989 (1925).
  • Mason, Charlotte. Home Education: Training and Educating Children Under Nine. Tyndale House, 1989 (1935).
  • “Topical CM Series: Narration.”, 2014,

What Your Student Needs to Know about Writing

Because language is the primary avenue for learning every other subject, you really can’t skimp on language arts in the early years without hampering a student’s academic development down the road. To ensure that a student transitions smoothly from elementary to middle school and high school writing, there are some basic skills and concepts that a student will need to master in the early years and beyond.

The Fluency Stage

The first several years of elementary school constitute what I like to call the fluency stage. Students are learning how to read and write words and sentences with increasing ease. They are becoming fluent in both the written and spoken word.

By the end of third grade, in addition to mastering phonics and penmanship, a student on strong footing in language arts and writing will

  • have a firm understanding of a sentence as a complete thought containing both a subject (what the sentence is about) and a predicate (what the sentence tells about the subject). (She need not know the words “subject” and “predicate,” but she will be able to recognize a complete sentence and to distinguish between a sentence and a fragment.)
  • know and consistently implement the basic mechanics of a sentence. In particular, he will know that the first word of a sentence is always capitalized and that every sentence must end with either a period, a question mark, or an exclamation mark. He will also know when to use which end punctuation and be familiar with the different kinds of sentences (such as questions, statements, commands, and exclamations).
  • be able to recognize paragraphs in a text and understand that a paragraph is a series of sentences relating to a particular point or topic.
  • understand that a word that names a person, place, thing, or idea is called a noun and that specific names, called proper nouns, begin with a capital letter.
  • be developing fluency with capitalization and basic punctuation norms.
  • have plenty of experience writing sentences, preferably through copywork and dictation, as well as from her own compositions.
  • have accumulated many, many hours of hearing books read aloud, both picture books and chapter books. (Even after, and maybe especially after, a student can read on his own, he still needs to hear the written word.)
  • have committed to memory several beautiful prose and poem selections which she is able to recite.
  • be able to orally tell back in his own words a short anecdote, story, or passage he has heard read aloud.

There are many good tools for helping students master these concepts and skills. One I’ve enjoyed using is English for the Thoughtful Child: Volume 1 by Mary F. Hyde revised and edited by Cynthia Shearer.

The Grammar Stage

Beginning around fourth grade, most students are ready for a more systematic study of grammar. In classical education circles, this stretch from fourth through fifth or sixth grade is commonly known as “the grammar stage.”

By the end of fifth or sixth grade, a student who is thriving in language arts and writing will, in addition to the above,

  • know and be able to identify all the parts of speech and all the parts of a sentence.
  • be familiar with the various verb tenses and moods and know how to maintain agreement and consistency across a composition.
  • understand the various functions of nouns and pronouns within sentences and be able to identify the various cases and roles within specific sentences.
  • be familiar with more advanced punctuation, mechanics, and usage norms.
  • know how to format a composition assignment for an academic setting.
  • be able to summarize and amplify sentences and rearrange the parts with ease.
  • be able to summarize, amplify, and imitate stories and passages.
  • be able to identify and articulate the main idea or central fact of a paragraph or selection.
  • be developing the ability to recognize literary elements such as character, setting, and plot.
  • understand how to organize paragraphs and multi-paragraph compositions utilizing topic sentences, transitions, clinchers/conclusions, and titles.
  • have experience incorporating descriptive writing, dialog, and other narrative elements within a composition.
  • be familiar with poetic elements such as rhyme, alliteration, simile & metaphor, and basic stanza forms.
  • have read (and heard read aloud) a variety of short stories, longer fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from different time periods and genres.

Here are a few among the many available resources that I have found helpful in developing a student’s grammatical know-how at this stage: (I wouldn’t use all three at once!)

Middle School & Beyond: Logic & Rhetoric

With their foundational language skills building to fruition, Middle School students are ripe for forays into essay writing where skills of logic and disputation come into play. In the classical trivium, the middle school years are known as the Logic stage wherein students engage in pre-Rhetoric exercises known collectively as the progymnasmata. Then, during highschool, students who have mastered the previous stages are ready for more formal studies in rhetoric and composition.

At An Elegant Word, our summer writing camps are designed to review the basics while stretching students to develop their essay-writing skills at the level appropriate for them. Basic Essay Writing introduces students to the structure of a simple essay, while Thesis Essay Writing challenges students to reach a higher level of argumentation and organization. The Advanced Essay camp builds on the others as students study modern and contemporary masters of different essay forms. In all three camps, we review basics such as formatting, sentence structure and style, principles of organization, and descriptive writing. Which camp is right for you?

Note: If your middleschool or highschool student has not yet mastered grammar, punctuation, and usage, it’s not too late! Easy Grammar Plus is a comprehensive resource that is especially easy to use. After you’ve got your feet wet with that, why not add Jensen’s Punctuation?

Write What Is Beautiful: A Cure for Formulaic Writing Instruction

“Before giving a youth the rules of good style, let us tell him first never to write anything which does not seem to him really beautiful, whatever the result may be.”
               -Jacques Maritain, Education at the Crossroads, p.44


A group of acclaimed authors are raising concerns about how creative writing is taught in UK schools, The Guardian reports. The concerned writers claim that “primary school teachers are steering children towards ‘too elaborate, flowery and over-complex language.’” This is a valid concern, especially when the writing instruction ingrains bad habits in stylistically tone-deaf students.

The authors, who are drafting an open letter to the education secretary, wisely point out the twin dangers of teaching writing to a test and of teaching writing in a literary void. It does students no good when we evaluate them for a writing product when we should be focusing on their process. We do them no good when we praise them for creative production when they have merely been doing syntactical, like musical, scales. And we harm students most when we ask them to produce creative work yet fail to provide them with any masters to imitate. Truly beautiful and compelling writing comes from readers. And when stylistic exercises devolve into strict rules about what makes good writing, everyone loses.

While the letter writers accurately take issue with these disturbing trends in writing instruction, they need not throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. There is a healthy tension between helping students expand their stylistic and syntactic range, on the one hand, and habituating formulaic and overly flowery writing, on the other. Vocabulary and sentence structure variation happen more naturally for some students than for others, but all can benefit from exercises that increase awareness of and proficiency with a growing toolbox of structural and stylistic options. Assignments that require practice in these areas are helpful when treated like the playing of scales in piano lessons: playing scales is not playing a musical masterpiece, but it may be a necessary step toward developing the proficiency needed to eventually play a musical masterpiece. In the same way, vocabulary, structural, and stylistic exercises should be treated as practice in developing fluency in a growing variety of writing forms and styles.

All writing instruction should be undertaken with the goal of developing the student’s ear to be able to both recognize and also imitate beautiful prose and verse passages within a wide range of style and genre. To accomplish this end, it helps to have a teacher who knows good writing when she sees it. Does the writing teacher read widely and well? Does she have good literary taste? Can she point her students to exemplary writing? Can she herself turn an elegant phrase? In short, does she have discernment and aptitude? A teacher with an ear for good writing will pass this ability on to her students through her example and enthusiasm. She will hold the balance between formulaic practice and fine-tuned elegance.

While some individuals may have an in-born affinity for writing, everyone has the capacity to recognize beauty. Good writing instruction stirs this capacity and awakens in the student a growing hunger for the good, the true, and the beautiful in the written word.

Good Readers Make Good Writers

When, as enthusiastic university students, my girlfriends and I asked poet and Nobel Prize laureate, Seamus Heaney (may he rest in peace), what he would advise aspiring writers, his answer was simple: “Read!” His answer is universally affirmed by writers, educators, and researchers alike: Reading (and being read to) is the number one indicator of a successful future writer.

As a writing teacher, I often suggest reading books—paper back, hard back, digital books, audio books—and not just silently by oneself. Family read-alouds are enjoyable and valuable in so many ways. Folks often get more from a book when hearing it aloud, and no one is ever too old to enjoy hearing a good tale.

Another reason read-alouds and audio books are such a great idea is related to the fact that language is primarily spoken and heard and only secondarily written down. When we write, we are writing what sounds good “in our head.” If students will listen to great poetry, stories, speeches, and essays frequently and repeatedly (for example, why not listen while doing chores, exercising, riding in the car, resting in bed, etc.?), they will start to lock the sentence structures and rhythms in their memory. When it comes to literature, repeat listening is great. Once the patterns are in, they will naturally start to come out in the student’s speaking and writing. This cycle of listening and imitating is how we first learned to speak our native language, and it is how we learn to write with an elegant voice.

Narration—telling back orally what we’ve heard—can also help quite a bit with observation, comprehension, and memory. Likewise, orally discussing books and passages may be the most important and effective way to develop comprehension and thinking skills, two very important aspects of high-level writing.

A healthy diet of books includes a breadth of classic literature from different genres and time periods, with large helpings of poetry, the King James Bible, and great speeches. The King James Bible—regardless of one’s religious persuasion or opinions regarding biblical translations—is also classic literature and is foundational to our English language and cultural heritage.

Memorization and recitation of beloved poems and prose passages cements the verbal patterns even more firmly while providing the scholar with a long-lasting source of joy. Poetry—and poetic prose—is, after all, a sensual thing meant to be heard and enjoyed for the way it sounds, the way the words feel in the mouth, as well as for the images the words evoke in the mind. Before television and movies, before even books and the printing press, there were poems and stories recited around the hearth. These poems and stories still give us life.

“Nobody but a reader ever became a writer.”

-Richard Peck

HT: Sally Clarkson for the video link.
If this topic interests you, you might want to check out Andrew Pudewa’s article, “The Arts of Language,” on the Institute for Excellence in Writing website, which spells out more fully how listening and speaking are the foundation for reading and writing. (There is also a corresponding audio download here.)